Trump Order for Meat Processing Plants to Stay Open Eases Plant Owner’s Liability Fears

By Jeff Mason | April 29, 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump plans to order U.S. meat processing plants facing concerns about coronavirus outbreaks to stay open to protect the country’s food supply, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

Amid concerns about potential food shortages, Trump is expected to sign an executive order later in the day using the Defense Production Act to mandate that the plants continue to function, the official said.

The five-page order is designed to give companies such as Tyson Foods Inc and others more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.

The order will also include guidance to minimize risk to workers who are especially vulnerable to the virus, the official said.

Trump said earlier on Tuesday that his administration was working with Tyson Foods and that the order would address liability concerns.

John H. Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, warned on Sunday that the food supply chain is “breaking” and vulnerable and warned of the potential for meat shortages.

“We’re working with Tyson … We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that will solve any liability problems where they had certain liability problems,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “We’re working with Tyson, which is one of the big companies in that world. And we always work with the farmers. There’s plenty of supply.”

The order is tied closely to the meat processing issue.

The senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said if action were not taken, the vast majority of processing plants could have shut down for a period of time, reducing capacity by as much as 80%.

“This is part of our critical infrastructure,” the official said of the meat processing plants.

Tyson said on Wednesday it was closing two pork processing plants, including its largest in the United States, further tightening meat supplies following other major slaughterhouse shutdowns.

The world’s biggest meat companies – including Smithfield Foods Inc, Cargill Inc, JBS USA and Tyson Foods – have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America since April as workers fall ill, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.

‘A Death Sentence’

Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group senior vice president for government affairs, criticized Trump’s move.

“Sending workers back to meat-processing plants without proper protection is tantamount to a death sentence,” he said in a statement urging Trump to ensure these workers have protective equipment, free testing and space to work safely.

More than 6,500 meat and food-processing workers have been infected with or exposed to the new coronavirus, and 20 have died, the country’s largest meatpacking union, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), said on Tuesday.

Administration officials and some Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that businesses that are reopening need liability protection from lawsuits employees might file if they become sick.

They cast it is a necessary prerequisite for business to have the confidence they need to reopen.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking to reporters on a teleconference on Tuesday that mainly centered on immigrants working in the healthcare sector, was asked about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing for business liability protections as they reopen their operations.

“Is he saying if an owner tells a worker he needs to work next to a sick person without a mask and wouldn’t be liable? That makes no sense,” Schumer said.

U.S. meat companies slaughtered an estimated 283,000 hogs on Tuesday, down about 43% from before plants began shutting because of the pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Processors slaughtered about 76,000 cattle, down about 38%.

About the photo: In this April 2020, photo provided by Tyson Foods, workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company’s Camilla, Georgia poultry processing plant. Tyson has added the plastic dividers to create separation between workers because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Tyson Foods via AP)

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